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Science & Space

Sled dogs train, perform like top athletes

Iditarod tests Alaskan huskies


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Iditarod
Alaska
Anchorage (Alaska)

(CNN) -- The Iditarod's sled dogs are some of the finest-tuned athletes in the world.

"We have a very elaborate protocol for evaluating dogs before they start the race," Stuart Nelson, the Iditarod's official veterinarian explains.

'It starts about three and a half weeks before the race...every dog has an EKG, blood work, physical exam, vaccinations, dewormed all that sort of thing...so it's a very time consuming effort to get the dog to the finish."

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a nine-day-to-two-week sled-dog race across some of Alaska's toughest terrain. It starts in Anchorage, Alaska, and finishes 1,100 miles (1,760 km) away in Nome. Billed as the "Last Great Race" the Iditarod is arguably the best-known sled-dog race in the world. This year's race started on March 5 with 79 teams. The first team to cross the finish line receives $72,000, a pickup truck and bragging rights.

The top teams are expected to reach Nome on Wednesday. (Full story)

Along the trail dogs wear booties to protect their feet from ice and rocks. Changing shoes on 16 dogs every day amounts to 64 paws each day. Averaging about 100 miles a day, dogs eat an astounding 10,000 calories a day.

Iditarod racer Tyrell Seavey says the dogs are just like athletes. The physical strain takes its toll on their feet, wrists and shoulders.

It is "similar to a runner's knees, hips, ankles that sort of thing...getting a sprained wrist is not uncommon."

If dogs run into trouble on the trail, they can be dropped off at checkpoints along the way, where there's special, color-coded medical attention.

"Most dogs that are dropped would be considered a White Dog, they're probably just tired, they don't really need anything special other than a little time and rest," Nelson says.

But vets are prepared for a critical dog, categorized as a Red Dog. They are flown to a McGrath or Unakleet, Alaska, where they are re-evaluated by veterinarians.

For first-time Iditarod musher Rachael Scdoris, who is legally blind, her dogs aren't just her muscle, they are her eyes. Scdoris relies on 7-year old Duchess to lead the team.

"She always knows exactly what I want. I can just look at her a certain way or make a certain whistle and she just goes and does what I want her to do. And I don't know how, she doesn't speak English, " Scdoris said.

Out on the trail, Scdoris makes sure her dogs say healthy.

"What we'll do a lot out there is we stop to check their muscles, do a little range of motion, see how well they can stretch, see if anything bothers them, and I'll do it in back as well. And I'll check their feet, look between their toes for splits."

A physically strong dog is a must, but an Iditarod dog also needs something more -- heart.

"A good dog has to have everything. There's far more to it then strength and stamina. There's heart and spirit of the dog," racer Seavey says.

Seavey, 20, is racing in his second Iditarod. He and his team of huskies have spent a year training for the race.

"I went the equivalent this winter on a dog sled of Anchorage, Alaska, to Atlanta, Georgia, the driving distance, and that was this winter alone on a dog sled that's enough time to bond with anything." Seavey said.

Mushed too far, too fast?

Even though race rules state that a musher can be penalized if the dogs aren't taken care of properly, critics say the Iditarod amounts to animal cruelty.

The nonprofit Sled Dog Action Coalition organization, dedicated to improving the lives of sled dogs, calls their treatment inhumane. According to the organization's Web site, dogs are forced to run at increasing speeds, so that the dogs get little rest or sleep.

However, Iditarod rules require teams make one 24-hour rest stop and two eight-hour stops during the race.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) opposes the Iditarod or "any other mushing event in which heavy emphasis is placed on competition and entertainment and in which dog deaths and injuries are regular consequences," the HSUS states on its Web site.

The HSUS doesn't agree that Iditarod dogs are like human athletes. "These comparisons fail to note that dogs, unlike human athletes, have no choice about their participation."

At least one dog has died each race in the past three years, according to published reports.

Just last weekend racer Paul Gebhardt lost a 3-year old female dog shortly after beginning the 18-mile run from Anvik to Grayling. Preliminary findings indicate the cause of death to be the result of anemia and gastric ulcers, according to race marshal Mark Nordman. Iditarod officials allowed Gebhardt to remain in the race.

"Any time an animal is at risk or participates in an event that costs their life, there is absolutely a concern," says Jo Sullivan is with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Sullivan doesn't outright condemn the Iditarod, but warns that proper care and observation of the animals is needed.

"Just like any other athletic event, people can push themselves and in this case their animals through competition beyond what is normal and what is expected. One mush team at a time needs to make sure that their animals are well taken care of, well loved, well cared for by a vet and that their not pushed passed their point of endurance."

Nelson promises that in Alaska, that is happening.

"I wouldn't be here if I thought it was a cruel thing. My goal is to learn as much as I can about these dogs, to educate mushers and veterinarians who work the race and that we can continually up the level of care for the animals."

Balto

Sled dogs are Alaskan huskies, bred to run and to pull. They're also known for their sweet dispositions, vital to keeping a team together through the harshest conditions.

The first famous sled dog was Balto, memorialized in statue in New York's Central Park, and the subject of a 1995 animated feature-length movie 'Balto.'

Balto led a dangerous mission to deliver vitally needed medicine to Nome, Alaska, in 1925. That mission inspired the Iditarod. Today, about 80 dog teams a year follow in Balto's paw prints.


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